Posted by: titaniumparts | October 6, 2013

Remembrance of things past

Indian-Chief-motorcycle-lrg

The new Indian Chief motorcycle.

In my working life I’m a freelance designer. Well, perhaps that under-represents what I do. I conceive and create ‘brand collateral’ – web sites, brochures, print advertising – for businesses. In doing that my first priority is always to understand what a client’s brand is about, and if this isn’t clear then I help them nurture it as an idea, to understand it, own it, and create a visual identity system to express it. I spend a lot of my time thinking about branding, how and why it works.

Brand is a weird concept. We all know a brand when we see one. Brands inhabit our comprehension of contemporary society and we’ve all become conditioned to read them with an astute and reflexive fluency. The notion of ‘brand’ has become rather vulgarised by its widespread use as a management consultancy buzz term but, putting that aside for now, as a feature of our daily lives brands are a very real, potent and deeply experienced facet of the cultural landscape. And once you start pursuing what certain brands ‘mean’ to us, unpacking their symbolic contents, it can reveal a vast array of meanings that we respond to in some far-reaching, subtle and complex ways.

What set me off on this was reading about the launch of the first new motorcycle from a manufacturer whose name has been resurrected from motorcycling’s past – a brand not seen since 1953 – the new Indian Chief (shown in the picture above), and I’ll come back to it in a moment.

But first, consider this, probably one of the finest examples of articulating a brand identity that I’ve ever seen. It’s Honda’s ‘Impossible Dream’ commercial, created by ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. A short, yet richly textured work of cinematic ambition, that whisks us through the history of Honda, in an inspired and inspiring, if shamelessly manipulative, style. (I favour this, the original cut, over the 2010 extended version):

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There are many different strands of ‘brand narrative’ at play in this commercial and the makers of this film have been admirably sensitive to the significance of some of the historical moments depicted; if you know about Honda you can pick up these deft allusions throughout. (In fact, even if you don’t know the history, on some subconscious level you’ll have absorbed the essence of it by the end of those two minutes). But the particular strand that I’m thinking about here, and the one that gives motive power to the whole narrative of that commercial, is that of ‘heritage’, when given its stylised expression in retro, nostalgic atmosphere, and the simple yet immensely powerful influence this can exert upon our emotions.

Car manufacturers have channeled retro design influences with some singular and quite remarkable successes – both the new Mini and Fiat 500 have been immense best sellers. But nowhere has heritage and its expression in ‘retro’ become more pervasive in terms of both corporate identity and product design philosophy than in the motorcycle industry.

And I have a feeling that the amount of retro in general circulation has been steadily increasing in recent times. (Certainly seems to be a lot more of it than there used to be back in the good old days …).

So I found myself reflecting on the question of how much these new Indian motorcycles represented merely the deployment of a heritage branding formula, or might perhaps be somehow genuinely channeling some of that same spirit, character and unique identity that defined the original manufacturer.

It’s certainly striking how much sheer presence still inheres in the ‘Indian’ logo alone. Just one six-letter word set in an antiquated font; yet that simple graphical device is so powerfully evocative, so resonant of a whole tract of American history. ‘The world’s fastest…’ salt flat speed records, or skinny-tyred visceral wooden board track races and ‘wall of death’ stunt riders of the 1920s.

Speaking personally, cruisers just don’t do it for me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the elegance of the Indian Chief as a beautifully executed branding exercise, to say nothing of the commitment and rigorous attention to detail that’s been invested in reanimating this long-dead name from motorcycling history. I think it’s clear that they knew they’d be held to account if they’d got this wrong. That styling though is pure 1930s Art Deco, and delightful to behold for that. But it would be a rare and unusual event for a car manufacturer to develop a new model with such atavistic styling cues. Clearly there are some quite unusual commercial factors at play here.

Of course, in the world of motorcycling, few have ploughed this heritage furrow more effectively than Harley Davidson, arguably the heritage brand par excellence. They sell huge global volumes of what are among the most expensive of mainstream production motorcycles, yet ones whose defining engineering principles have remained largely unchanged since the mid-20th century. Nor indeed (let’s be frank) do Harley make particularly capable motorcycles, at least for any purpose other than travelling in long, undeviating straight lines with a certain kind of heavy metal, Wurlitzer-meets-agricultural chic.

Yet, judging by the number of them I see on the roads (British roads, with bends in them!), and the way that on certain sunny weekends they seem to outnumber other makes of motorcycle by a ratio of at least two-to-one, they’re clearly providing something that a good number of people will enthusiastically buy into, even if it does cost them nearly twice the price of a far more technically advanced and capable European or Japanese bike.

And so, it seems to follow, the business case for these new Indians derives from a recognition that there’s a very sizeable market of people, with considerable amounts of disposable income, who really, really love this kind of stuff.

Almost all the large, mainstream motorcycle manufacturers seem to have a retro niche in their line-ups, referencing glorious moments in their past.

Doubtless with full awareness of their role in fostering and fulfilling many of our wishes and dreams from the earliest age, it seems that automotive engineering enterprises particularly lend themselves to deep and multi-faceted brand identities. And an intrinsic quality in most of these brands, to a greater or lesser extent, will be a nod towards heritage and the brand’s place in our shared social history. Only the newest, brashest johnny-come-latelys seem to eschew this angle in their brand profile (I suppose I’m thinking here of a company like KTM, whose comparatively brief history requires that they promote their primary virtues as being those of a kind of unabashed bad-boy modernity).

Here in Britain – during the 1980s – the moribund Triumph brand was resurrected and reborn, and the new company bearing its name has since gone on to become one of the shining success stories of British engineering. And although they now build some of the very best contemporary sports bikes, the top-selling cash cow, the model that has sustained them throughout, has been their carefully nuanced replicas of the original 1960s and 70s Bonneville. In engineering terms these Bonnevilles are not the same as their namesakes from the brand’s former heyday, although the new Triumph company have gone to some considerable lengths to reproduce the style and dynamics. Certainly these Bonnevilles are pretty enough, but still they’re firmly rooted in a heritage theme park ethos. For the brand (or marque) itself there’s little if any continuity with those former factories in Meriden, now flattened and replaced by a housing estate, all traces gone, save for a few evocative street names. But still the Triumph name and original logo manage to evoke a time when British motorcycles dominated the world – and it seems, as far as heritage goes, that’s sufficient continuity for most people.

Moving down to a virtual cottage-industry level, you can now once more buy a new, box-fresh Norton Commando (albeit beautifully reinterpreted and updated to the 21st century in engineering terms). These are being manufactured in limited numbers from a small workshop adjacent to the Donington Park race circuit.

As an aside – I’m struck that I find myself wanting to use the terms ‘brands’ and ‘marques’ interchangeably, even though I realise that each brings into play its own subtle distinctions and value judgements, and says something about the power of words to influence our terms of reference and to shape our interpretation of an ‘objective’ reality.

So what’s going on here? Why does retro remain so influential?

There’s no doubt that we all necessarily look to the past to appreciate iconic landmark design moments, those beautiful convergences of form and function that come to define the eras that produced them. Perfect expressions of a concept or ambition with the power to trigger deep responses in our collective aesthetic sensibilities. That’s a part of it.

Within my own preferred marque – Ducati – there are some particularly interesting examples of the way that this can play itself out in the brand narrative.

sport classic 11

Ducati Sport Classic 1000LE ‘Paul Smart’ edition

Ducati have created both deliberately retro products – the Paul Smart edition of the Ducati Sport Classic range from a few years ago is one of my own personal favourite factory retro bikes – but they’ve also had to contend with the unexpected retro effect exerted by their own iconic design history. I’m referring, of course, to the bike that came to define the company in the 1990s: the 916. This was a contemporary design landmark so huge, so significant, such a game-changer, that one could argue it has cast far too long a shadow across the subsequent design thinking of the factory and the sensibilities of its customers ever since.

And alas it was a case of woe betide the man who sought to replace it. That man was of course Pierre Terblanche and the bike he designed was the 999 (together with its smaller capacity but otherwise identical sibling the 749, which is what I ride).

I’ve loved everything about my 749 ever since I bought it, brand new, back in 2006 – including its styling. But I’ve lost count of the times over the intervening years that I’ve ended up fielding the same remarks from other bikers – ‘but it doesn’t look like a proper Ducati’, ‘it’s a bit of an ugly duckling’ – on each occasion defending my bike with the counter-argument that really it just kind of depends how you look at it.

And now, oddly enough, ten years since its launch, the angular elegance of Pierre Terblanche’s design is being reevaluated – increasingly elevated to the status of a ‘classic’ – and contemporary eyes are more ready to see that it was indeed an inspired attempt to assert a continuity with Ducati’s heritage as an innovator. But the punters – the Ducatisti – who the company needed to actually buy the things – well a good many of them weren’t ready for too much innovation at that time, and they grumbled about the styling, and the betrayal of Ducati’s heritage, and they stayed away.

The 999 had a production run of just three years (2003 – 2006) before they were dropped, and the company took a headlong step back into the past by echoing the lines, stance and ergonomics of Tamburini’s 916 design in the 1098 model that replaced the 999. I recall at this time how it seemed to me a little shabby the way the company swiftly sought to characterise the 999 as an aberration, suggesting that the true lineage of the company’s superbike heritage ran more correctly from the 916 to the 1098. You really could sense the desperation in their attempts to get the heritage brand narrative back on course.

Even in this story the subtle complexities of brand and heritage – what they mean to different people all of whom have an opinion about it – can be seen playing themselves out.

Interestingly, it’s only now – with hindsight, as the passing of time allows people to look back at these bikes – that they’re coming to be appreciated. Seems we’re prepared to embrace cutting-edge futurism once it has taken its place firmly in the past. To describe something as ‘ahead of its time’ only serves to locate it more firmly in a time that’s already gone. This seems to free us to become nostalgic about the way that we were once shocked and unsettled by a startling new design departure, and so begin to view it more fondly.

Another aside – What few people appreciate, and something that you can’t really appreciate unless you’ve ridden Tamburini’s original iconic design and Terblanche’s angular and divisive successor side by side – as I have – is that Terblanche’s bike was, and still remains, one of the very finest sports bikes for the road that Ducati have ever produced; a far better proposition than the 916 (996, 998 etc.) ever was. Aesthetics aside, the 999 was a superior engineering solution in almost every way. Its biggest problem was really only the way it was perceived as transgressing the company’s brand values –  for that reason alone it didn’t sell in sufficient numbers, and that was its downfall.

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ace-cafe-retro

The Ace Cafe London back-in-the-day

While the Harley and Indian brands evoke one particular narrative of nostalgic yearning – the Route 66 road movie version of the American dream – in the UK brands like Triumph and Norton sit within a more parochially English kind of story, one that encompasses within its sweep – to select just a few pins in the cultural/historical map – pre-war speed trials on the Brooklands banking; waxed Belstaff jackets; ton-up leather boys at London’s Ace Café of the 1950s; the Isle of Man TT; and youth riots on Brighton beach. Deep within the British psyche there abides a grainy black-and-white, often slightly grungy working class rebellion narrative of motorcycling, out on the margins of society. But still it’s a compelling and alluring one, and seems to be instinctively recognisable to most English people. Today the revived Ace Café serves as the heart, soul and hub of the UK retro bike scene.

It’s as though these showroom-new retro motorcycles become a kind of modern totem, embodying a complex set of historical and cultural values (to adapt the traditional definition of totem as an object representing the tribal stories of a mythic or ancestral past). They embody something that resonates with our sense of ourselves and the history we feel that we’re a part of, or perhaps at least a history that we yearn to have participated in, and they connect us with an idealised sense of our national and cultural identity. And, because we feel these things, those emotions also become invested in the meaning and interpretation we bring to these brands as a whole.

Even in the custom bike building sphere the rise of the urban ‘café racer’ movement continues to look steadfastly to the past for its inspiration. Reviving the old, either by painstaking restoration, or by crafting layers of retro styling upon a more modern donor machine, remains its primary ethos.

Whilst music must be the most common nostalgic trigger, some objects – and particularly motorcycles – can also exert an immense nostalgic power upon us, stirring us to a misty-eyed romanticisation of the recent historical past, with feelings that are bound up with notions about simpler, happier, more human-scaled times.

We tend to experience nostalgia as a spontaneous, sub-rational and emotive response. And the past that is symbolically alluded to is often highly idealised, selective in its detail, and quite possibly lacking in a good deal of objective historical accuracy. But still, these are sensations that can be mobilised to great effect to convey a story, doing so in terms of how it might have felt more than how it actually may have been (see Honda advert etc.).

There’s a view within psychology which asserts that experiencing nostalgic feelings – those reveries of sweet sadness – are actually closely linked to a strong, positive sense of emotional well being, even a perceived sense of physical warmth, as though this is a technique we’ve developed to help ward off the vicissitudes of life in the present and draw a comfort blanket around our troubled minds for a while (perhaps equivalent to the benefits derived from wearing a ‘psychological jumper’ as my wife calls some of her less fashionable but, she insists, still greatly comforting items of heavy knitwear).

Is the allure of retro a response to the seemingly exponential pace of change – especially technological change – in our contemporary lives?

Maybe the enduring presence of ‘retro’ in industrial design is playing to a part of culture where, as we individually get older, we seek – or at least recognise an affinity with – products that enable us to make some sense of the passage of time, of the scale of progress, and specifically to somehow ease the melancholic sting of the passing of our own years.

I’ve noticed that my own most common nostalgic reveries are rooted in my experience of the world at a key formative stage in my youth. Coming to consciousness, as it were, in my early teen years in the mid 1970s, I’m hopelessly captivated by blue-smoke ring-ting-ting 2-stroke Kawasaki triples and big green Z900s, red and white speed-block graphics on thumping Yamaha XT500s, Honda CB750 Fours and silver, six-cylinder CBXs. As powerfully as a pop song might, the sight of bikes such as these can instantly drop me through a wormhole straight back to a way I used to feel, to a time when life had yet to fully begin and felt full of rich possibilities, and also to the mean disappointment of the fact that such bikes were way beyond the reach of a teenager of such modest means as my own at those times.

It’s worth remembering that these iconic bikes from the 70s were, of course, utter rubbish by today’s standards. Although that doesn’t diminish one iota their potency as nostalgic totems.

Indeed, the thing is, they weren’t rubbish then. Or rather they were, but they were still as good as anybody could make them at that time, and better than anything that had gone before. But our standards and expectations are continually plunging forwards into the future. Today’s cutting edge technology, that looks so new and fresh to us now, will soon enough come to seem anachronistic, and we’ll wonder how we ever thought it was so amazing. But this very pace of change, the remorselessness of it, perhaps also plays its part in the appeal of the retro/nostalgia thing.

Fact is, we all seem to love our retro in some form or another. The motorcycle industry cannily fills these respective niches with carefully judged heritage products to seduce us, to seek out our particular nostalgic trigger, whether that be a giant art-deco highway cruiser or a silver and turquoise, old-school Ducati café racer.

Opening the garage door on a 21st century Norton Commando is perhaps a bit like having your own private time machine of the imagination. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, at least so long as looking backwards doesn’t obscure an appreciation of the many positive achievements that can be found in our own time, or encourage us to fall into simplistic notions that the past really was a golden era we should be seeking to return to in a political and social sense. It’s fun to time travel a little, but our true time is only and ever now.

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Posted by: titaniumparts | May 8, 2013

There’s Always Someone Faster Than You

You don’t really appreciate just how big a buzzard is until you’re about to collide with one head-on at 70mph

You don’t really appreciate just how big a buzzard is until you’re about to collide with one head-on at 70mph

‘No work today, the sun is shining’

Those words often run through my mind. They don’t amount to much when taken on their own, because their real poignancy is all about context. They are to be found etched into a memorial table outside of the bus station café in Abergavenny, a popular tribal gathering place for motorcyclists in South Wales, and the focal point of some of the very finest riding roads in the UK.

I don’t know anything about the background to those words, whose they were, or quite how that person came to meet their end. But I’m always touched by their innate poetry, in that particular location; by the way they suggest the essence of a character and spirit, how they encapsulate a tale, and express both the joy of life, the embrace of its simplest, greatest pleasures, whilst also – by virtue of context – illustrating how fragile and transient our time here is.

Nor is this memorial inscription the only one. There are others; all for motorcyclists. Little plaques, affixed to the cluster of wooden benches surrounding the café. They bear dedications of heartbreaking brevity that leave the imagination trying to encompass the scale of the ordinary tragedies they represent.

This otherwise unassuming outdoor furniture, dedicated to the fallen, always elicits a few moments of reflection and respect from me. It serves as an affecting testament that, however much we may revel in the joys and satisfactions of motorcycling, we are always, to some extent, grabbing a tiger by the tail and would do well to stay sharp about just how finely-balanced is this gyroscopic act which those of us fortunate enough to still be here keep managing to pull off. A gentle, solemn reminder that messing it up can have proper consequences.

So it was, on my return run from Abergavenny, that I was passed at what seemed to be banzai velocity by another bike, immediately howling out of sight beyond the vanishing point of the next curve on the tight, twisty road we were navigating. And I found myself wondering – how much margin for error did he think he still had in hand? Not as much as I’d want to retain, that’s for sure. This was, after all, a tricky, challenging country road in South Wales on a Sunday afternoon, not the Senior TT.

Now, I’m a moderately quick road rider, and decades of experience are brought to bear upon maintaining a pace that will be safe and appropriate for the conditions, although at times not necessarily in accordance with the view taken by the Highways Agency when posting limits. (I’ll readily admit that this is a complex equation, and suffers from the inclusion of a human being’s capacity to accurately judge their own abilities, which is likely to be an unreliable metric at best. But, still, I really do think that as a general principle many of us are better drivers/riders when responding fluently to their vehicle and the road conditions rather than fixating on a speedometer).

For me, as a broad rule, fast riding means operating at around 60-70% of my (perceived) absolute capacity to deal with any sudden unexpected events. If I’m rolling into a blind bend I’ll carry as much speed as I can, but never so much that I wouldn’t feel I could realistically stand the bike on its nose in an emergency stop if I were suddenly presented with something that ought not to be there. Anything beyond this is outside of my comfort zone.

But experience has taught me a lot about how much extra latitude you actually need to build into these parameters, because it’s one thing to take account of the risks that one can reasonably anticipate – diesel spills, side roads, zombie sat-nav lane changers – quite another to factor in an allowance for the ones that you can’t.

An example: riding on this same quiet, remote road, on a different day, I startled a huge buzzard that was tearing into some fresh roadkill on the verge. Perfectly camouflaged in dappled shadows, the bird was effectively invisible until it took flight, at which point – inexplicably – it chose to launch itself straight towards me. My closing speed was such that the buzzard and I collided only an instant later, its immense outswept wings completely filling my field of vision. Only by virtue of an instinctive duck and shimmy – and perhaps, on reflection, the fork compression under braking effectively dropping my height by a few centimetres – was I able to deflect the impact so that the bird bounced off my right shoulder. A lucky escape, as if we’d collided square-on there could easily have been a worse outcome.

Well, I didn’t expect that. But those are exactly the type of genuinely random events that could well do for you when you opt to gamble into some of your margin. Of course it’s a big buzz to go there. And it’s clear that you can get away with it, and get away with it, until that one occasion arises, the one perfectly awful confluence of chance and motion, when you have a brief instant in which to think ‘I wasn’t expecting that’, perhaps even to rue the fact that at 60-70% you might have dealt with it, but that actually it looks as though you might be about to hear the Song of the Sausage Creature.

There are motorcyclists who profess that their greatest fear is to encounter a leaping deer when riding through woodland. In Australia, airborne kangaroos are notorious for crashing through car windscreens without the slightest warning, and you can’t fit ‘roo bars to a bike. In Scandinavia, I believe that moose-strikes commonly claim lives on the country’s forest roads.

Some years ago I worked with a biker who told me how he’d once rounded the blind apex of a country bend in Somerset and ridden straight into a cow that had found its way through a hedge and was standing in the road. He’d spent months in hospital as a result.

Incidentally, the buzzard, as far as I could tell when I pulled up to gather myself, appeared to have survived the encounter too, as it was nowhere to be seen.

So my conclusion, reflecting upon the banzai corner entry speed I’d witnessed, was this: There’s always someone faster than you, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got your equation wrong. The fact that you’re still here, still riding, still unscathed – still loving every moment of it – means that your equation is working well for you. Continue to refine and develop your instincts and senses, listen to and trust them, and certainly never get sucked in to any pointless willy-waving nonsense with someone who’s chosen to operate with a looser risk calibration. Always keep a good fat buffer of capability in hand for that one occasion when you think you’re least likely to need it. And enjoy the sunshine when you can.

Posted by: titaniumparts | July 8, 2010

Motorcyclists – selfish & irresponsible?

Ducati 749 - Black Mountains, Wales

My bike: perhaps a bit disappointed to learn that it's assumed to be a threat by some people.

Last week an article was published on the UK’s Guardian newspaper web site that has since provoked quite a lot of forum debate and a good deal of controversy. 

The article – entitled Selfishness of speeding motorcyclists. Motorcyclists who speed on public roads are immoral and criminally selfish – but cameras won’t stop them’ was authored by Ed Douglas, a regular contributor to the newspaper’s opinion column. 

  

You can read the original article here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/30/selfishness-speeding-motorcyclists 

I think it’d be quite hard to be a motorcyclist and not feel somewhat provoked by this piece, but I found myself even more aggrieved to discover that I could no longer provide a comment in response, as this facility had been closed. 

So, instead, I wrote directly to Ed Douglas – via the newspaper’s Reader’s Editor – expressing my feelings about the article. To my surprise I received a very prompt response, which then became a more lengthy email exchange in which Ed Douglas and I discussed some of the wider issues that I felt had a bearing on the views he’d expressed. 

I feel there’s some merit in publishing this exchange, which I’ve reproduced below in its full and unedited form: 

David H (Titaniumparts) 

Dear Mr Douglas 

I wish I’d seen the above article soon enough to add a comment – but now the site has closed further comments and denied the rest of us an opportunity to respond. 

Mr Douglas, I’m sorry to read about your traumatic experience, but I’m incredibly irritated by the fact that you’ve been given the opportunity to use it as a platform to promote yet further disinformation and discrimination against motorcycling.  

I’m a motorcyclist of many years’ experience. Never hurt anyone, never crashed into anything, never even fallen off (well okay, once, but I was stationary at the time, having stalled the engine whilst pulling away). 

There are so many remarks I could make about your piece, but I’ll just offer this. 

The closest I’ve ever come to a serious collision whilst riding my motorcycle on the road was the inverse of the situation you described in your article. I was riding my bike along a fast, single-carriageway A-road in Somerset. As I approached a long line of  oncoming cars the one at the rear pulled out to make a ridiculously ambitious overtake. The driver hadn’t even noticed me approaching. Committed to their manoeuvre the car drove straight at me on my side of the road, forcing me to take heavy-braking evasive action. Fortunately, due to my experience, and my bike’s exceptionally powerful brakes, I avoided the unobservant idiot in the car, managing to stop my bike in the gutter, narrowly avoiding becoming another motorcycling accident statistic myself (whereupon I would no doubt have been blamed for bringing it upon myself). 

It was only as the car barged past just inches from me – speeding way over the posted limit – that I realised it was a marked Police traffic patrol vehicle with a uniformed driver. 

By this point he may have noticed the consequences of his rash, negligent and irresponsible driving – performed without any sirens or flashing lights I might add – but as I was left to gather up my shredded nerves he was long gone on his way. 

My point is that anybody –  anybody at all – in charge of any kind of motor vehicle can be a liability on the roads, even so-called ‘trained police drivers’. Yes, people can be stupid and irresponsible on motorcycles, but actually it’s not about the vehicle, it’s about the mentality of the person in control of it. Of course the key difference with motorcyclists is that we’re more visible to all the frustrated car drivers who sit stewing on our clogged roads. We’re an easy target for criticism and provide an outlet for all that frustration – one only need look at the smug, nasty, ill-informed responses that your article provoked in the subsequent comments to see that. (Still, nice work there Ed;  filled your column inches, job done I guess). 

I’d bet that the majority of motorcyclists could demonstrate far superior road safety awareness, machine control skills, observation and consideration than most of the dozy, inattentive car drivers fiddling with their iPhones and dashboard-mounted sat nav. Most of us who choose to ride motorcycles take all of those road-craft skills very seriously – we have to, we’re only too aware that our lives depend upon it (and we have no wish to become ‘organ donors’ as many commenters so charitably described us). But, unlike you, I won’t ever be offered the opportunity to present that case … and anyway, that wouldn’t  make for good news copy would it?  

I could offer many counter examples of accidents and deaths caused by poor training and stupid, careless, inattentive or irresponsible driving in cars. But I don’t think you’re really interested in considering the more complex issues around road safety in this country are you? 

You get to describe the actions of one irresponsible motorcyclist in a Guardian article. It’ll have been read by thousands of people by now, the majority all nodding along sagely about just how right you are. Prejudices will have been reinforced.  And sooner or later we’ll see motorcycling, one of the great joys of my life, legislated out of existence. My story, or any informed insight I might have, won’t get seen or read by anyone (maybe even you won’t have bothered reading this far!).  

Perhaps I should respond by writing an article about how selfish and irresponsible rock climbing is. I know absolutely nothing about climbing and the skills and experience required of those who engage in it, but it appears that needn’t be any impediment to offering an opinion about you all.  

__________________________________________________ 

Ed Douglas (Guardian opinion columnist) 

Dear David, 

Thanks for taking the time to write to The Guardian about the piece I wrote following the publication last week of the Road Safety Foundation report. 

First, to reiterate the points in Leslie’s reply to you, this was an opinion piece and although the comments section for it is closed, I’m sure the Comment is free section would consider publishing a response. 

Given the content and perspective of your email, I think it unlikely that we’re going to see eye-to-eye on this issue, but I’m happy to answer some of your points. 

The target of my article was not you. Taking your email at face value, you seem to be one of the vast majority of motorcycle riders who are responsible and safe. I pointed out in my copy that my complaint was not against this group, but against the tiny minority who seem to think it acceptable to use public roads as race tracks. I’m sure you deplore what is criminal behaviour. 

My qualification – and reason – for writing this article was not that I’m a rock climber – I  mentioned that only because I understand the attraction of risk – but that a road I drive on frequently is made more hazardous at certain times by irresponsible bike riders breaking the speed limit, and that I’ve had direct experience of the consequences of that. (I wasn’t traumatised by the accident, but it was a shocking experience.) 

I also write regularly on issues relating to the Peak District and on traffic management in National Parks. You’re entitled to your opinion as to whether I’m irresponsible and ill-informed, but I work hard to be neither. You will know that the rate of  fatal road traffic accidents has halved in the last forty years, but that in recent years progress has slowed. There are a number of causes for this, from the state of our roads to intelligent signage, and speeding motorcyclists is one of them. If that weren’t the case, the police and road authorities wouldn’t spend so much time and effort in the Peak trying to dissuade them from doing it. 

And while you’re quite correct that I don’t ride a bike now, I did ride a bike when I was younger, and have plenty of friends who  still do, so I’m not uninformed about that side of things. I ride a push bike on an almost daily basis, and I’m well aware that car drivers are more careless than those on two wheels. (We are even more vulnerable than those on motorbikes.) So I entirely agree with you that motorcyclists are usually more careful, better trained and more safety aware than most car drivers. 

I certainly don’t hope that motorcycling is made impossible through legislation. It’s great fun. But to reiterate my earlier point, I was taking aim at the kind of rider who caused the accident I witnessed, no one else. 

Best wishes,
Ed Douglas
 

____________________________________________ 

David H (Titaniumparts) 

Ed 

As you say, we’re unlikely to agree, and this is probably as hopeless as any religious or political debate might be, because to some degree it’s about having differing beliefs and value systems. 

But, having said that, I do find that there’s more that I want to say to you on this matter. 

Firstly, we know that statistics can be spun to fit any cause we might want them to serve. The fact that the Cat & Fiddle road is a magnet for motorcyclists is likely to produce weirdly skewed data anyway, by virtue of the concentration of numbers in such a small area. I’ve never been there myself, but I did see the documentary aired by the BBC a few years ago (which you’re doubtless familiar with) and from that I got the impression the road was popular with fast car enthusiasts too, so it’d be interesting to know how they’re featured in the statistics. 

I admit that I haven’t seen the stats, but I’m sure if we examined every single incident in granular detail we’d probably find quite a complex picture of cause and effect emerging. Your piece was structured to convey a simplistic implication that speeding motorcycles are the sole cause of problems in the area, and as much as anything it’s the way that assertion became a lightning rod for a raft of shockingly ignorant comments that made me so aggrieved. 

On a wider stage, the fact is that there’s currently an emerging trend in the press that’s seeking to demonise motorcyclists, with the Daily Mail and News of the World both recently running high-profile pieces that effectively cast us as habitual criminals with a death-wish. And your article – which you might agree was pretty short on in-depth analysis – just served to perpetuate this kind of anti-motorcycle hysteria. 

Can you honestly tell me that you were entirely comfortable with the comments your article provoked? Personally, I was appalled by the tirade of nasty, mean-spirited and spiteful remarks that appeared below your piece. And if that’s what was deemed suitable to leave in place then I don’t even want to think about what was removed by the moderators. 

 
And yes, I do believe that this kind of progressive demonisation by the media will lead to increasing legislation against motorcycling, because this is exactly the kind of thing that motivates politicians and policymakers as they try to surf the waves of public opinion to secure and maintain their position in government.
 

The most obvious example is the motorcycle test itself, which has become more and more difficult (and not really any better for it either; we could digress into how hopelessly ill-judged and inappropriate all of those reforms have been, contributing very little to producing safer and better-trained motorcyclists – but let’s just leave that vast subject to one side for now). But still, it is becoming much tougher to gain a motorcycle licence, and as this has already begun to dissuade many potential new riders from seeking to qualify, the progressive effect will be to eliminate the motorcycle industry by attrition. 

Meanwhile the driving test remains largely unchanged, while experience and anecdotal evidence suggest to me that driving standards are in desperate decline. 

And of course all those Astons, Ferraris, Porsches and BMWs, Vauxhall VXRs and Honda Civic Type Rs (and so on, and on) aren’t being sold with the intention that they’d ever be used to exceed the national speed limit on a public road are they? … well, okay, I won’t resort to sarcasm, but you can see my point surely? Really, when it comes down to it, what difference is there between a powerful bike and a powerful car if either are in the hands of someone inclined to use them foolishly? 

Motorcyclists are highly visible, what we do is not well understood by those who’ve never ridden, but we’re a small minority and that makes us easy targets for rabble-rousing attempts to whip up public emotion. But woe betide the politician that tried to take away the keys to the hot hatch, sports saloon or 500bhp German executive barge – then they’d face some serious numerical opposition. You, and others who are writing these kind of pieces, are applying a double standard. If you’re going to criticise, then criticise all performance vehicles. But you know as well as I do that wouldn’t play to the crowd half as effectively. 

 
I’m perfectly well aware that some motorcyclists behave like total cocks. But I can only emphasise the point I made before, that there’s nothing intrinsic to the fact of them being on a motorcycle that contributes to that, with the possible exception of spending less of their time stuck in traffic jams.
 

Actually there are efforts being made within the motorcycling press and the biking community to rein-in the more blatantly transgressive and antisocial elements, because we recognise that their actions influence perceptions of all motorcyclists…  and basically, those tossers are in danger of wrecking the whole bloody thing for the rest of us. But it takes time to get that message through to them. And all the speed cameras and road signs, and hysterical nonsense in the mainstream media, won’t make much difference because it’s all so hopelessly off-target; it simply doesn’t speak to the people who we need to try and educate. But, believe it or not, we are actually trying to put our house in order ourselves. 

 
And just one last thing. As for the way you keep going on about the attraction of risk – I must say that’s completely lost on me. I don’t find risk in the least bit attractive. What I enjoy about riding a motorcycle is the satisfaction that comes from exercising a set of skills that I’ve honed over many years. It’s about a particular sense of graceful motion, control, total involvement and engagement with my surroundings. I’m happy to leave the risk-taking to the climbers.
 

__________________________________________________ 

Ed Douglas (Guardian opinion columnist) 

Dear David, 

Thanks for your reply. I can understand your frustration, particularly about thoughtless and aggressive comments following the piece I wrote, but I can only reiterate that I was commenting on a very specific group of riders in a very specific place. I can see that you think I was getting at all motorcyclists, but I wasn’t. 

I know that the general population can be prejudiced against motorcyclists, as they are against cyclists, something I’ve experienced personally. And yet I can also see that those cyclists who break red lights and swear at drivers and scare pedestrians are behaving badly – and I disassociate myself from them. 

I take your point about the driving test, and I shall bear your points in mind for the future. But I hope you can also see it from the perspective of someone who regularly feels threatened by speeding motorcyclists and has witnessed the consequences. 

Finally, on the issue of risk. I have to say I didn’t think I was going on about it. You mentioned it, so I responded. But on that subject: You may not find it attractive, but clearly, someone driving a motorbike at high speed on a twisting road does. All I meant was that I don’t want to stop people doing what they want, even if it’s risky, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. 

Your description of what it feels like to be a competent motorcyclist would serve for what it feels like to be a competent climber. The statistics show you face more risk than a car driver, and that’s why you focus on being safe. I like that philosophy. 

Best wishes,
Ed
 

 _________________________________________ 

  

So, there we are. I’m not going to add any more as I think I’ve probably stated my own case clearly enough already, but at least by putting this exchange in the public domain there is now something more closely resembling an informed and reasoned debate on the subject.  

 

Posted by: titaniumparts | October 21, 2008

Things you can’t tell just by looking at them

The 1978 Hailwood replica Ducati 900 - that's what I mean by heritage.

1978 Hailwood Ducati 900 - that's the kind of thing I mean by heritage.

Many years ago, among my earliest experience with motorcycles, I recall gaining an insight that made a strong impression. This insight came about because I had the opportunity to ride two ostensibly identical bikes, back-to-back, in direct comparison; the less-than-glamorous subjects of this were two Honda CD175s. The bikes each belonged to a couple of mates, one was red and the other blue, and I recall that the red one was affectionately referred to by its owner as ‘The dinosaur’ – a name which accurately and succinctly reflected both the styling and performance of the CD175. Anyway, the most striking thing was that while obviously much was similar (and, frankly, similarly rubbish) about these two identical versions of the same model, there were also some clearly perceptible differences too. But these differences all resided in intangible qualities such as feel, heft, and responsiveness; revealed in the bite-point of a brake lever or the clutch, or tiny variations in the response of the suspension in corners or when braking. I concluded that these small but still appreciable differences resulted from differential use and wear since each bike had left the factory. But, by far the most instructive part of the experience for me, was coming to appreciate so clearly that machines possess inherent qualities that reveal themselves only in the tactile experience of using them. I think I also rather liked the idea that a machine could acquire ‘personality’ throughout the course of its life – as if, like us, they too are shaped by their experiences.

It’s always instructive to experience another vehicle, as it enables us to gain a fresh perspective on those that we’ve become familiar with using. Of course most of us don’t have many opportunities to gain first-hand experience of a wide range of bikes or cars, and I suppose it’s our curiosity to know more about such things that keeps motoring journalists in work.

So when I recently had the opportunity to test ride a KTM 990SM this was clearly something to be seized upon. And what a truly extraordinary and satisfying motorcycle it was. For a while afterwards I even seriously entertained the possibility of buying one, but to do this I would have had to give up the 749, and in the end this wasn’t something I’d be prepared to do at this point in time. In fact, it was going through the process of considering this that revealed to me what a deep emotional investment I have in my yellow Ducati.

For all that the KTM was brilliant – and I must reiterate that it was a beautifully balanced and responsive motorcycle – it was, of course, quite different as a riding experience. I was particularly surprised to discover how refined the 990SM was to ride, given that it comes with a fearsome reputation for dwelling out on the extreme fringes of the motorcycling spectrum. Or rather, I should say how refined I found it to be in comparison with my 749.

It served to remind me just how unrepentantly focussed, demanding, challenging and visceral the 749 actually is. I’ve become so accustomed to it that I took these things for granted, and had begun to imagine that all bikes were like that. But stepping straight from the KTM to the Ducati really emphasised just how much DNA the 749 shares with all those raw, thoroughbred race bikes that trace their roots all the way back to the era of Paul Smart and Mike Hailwood. It’s a well-trodden line that racing has always been central to the spirit of Ducati, but the truth of this is there in the bikes. I’ve found that you can’t just ride the 749 so much as commit to riding it – anything less and you may as well not bother going out.

Beyond the enduring position at the top of the ‘cool brands’ chart, and their occasionally questionable merchandising decisions, at their core Ducati have remained resolutely committed to building superb if somewhat single-minded motorcycles, and doing so on their own unique and often quite idiosyncratic terms. 

I’m reminded that during my time with the Ducati 749 I’ve been fortunate to experience a motorcycle that feels like nothing less than a precision instrument, possessing a depth of capability developed to equal the skills of some the world’s greatest and most accomplished riders. A machine that represents a sublime evolution and refinement of the form, created by the craftsman’s hand and an alchemical translation of the accrued wisdom and expertise of generations into something really rather special. And this must be why the 749 never ceases to impress me, and continues to engage, absorb and reward me every single time I ride it. And when you’ve come to know something like that, you realise that on some level you would always miss it once it was gone.

It’s these qualities – the tactile, moving and memorable experiences of riding the bike itself – that make it so difficult to countenance the idea of moving on from it to something new. Perhaps if I’d owned the latest consumer superbike from one of the Japanese factories then now, after three years of ownership, it might have begun to seem a little jaded and out of date. Yet somehow Ducatis manage to stand aside from the ebb and flow of fashion; each model instead becoming an enduring example of a specific era of engineering excellence in its own right, a singular expression of Ducati’s ethos and vision at that particular moment in time. While this does seem to be a phenomenon common to many of the small European (and mostly Italian) factories, it’s not their exclusive preserve – a bike like the Honda RC30 could also be said to pull off the same trick. But it does seem that with the Italian marques each model becomes … I’m trying not to use the word ‘classic’ here … but certainly part of a heritage, rather than simply a product that’s passed out of date.

I’m sure that this way of thinking is why so many motorcyclists (or at least comparatively wealthy ones) end up with garages full of different bikes. It’s because the experience of riding them is so involving, so often rich and rewarding, and because (at least with the very best motorcycles) each bike has its own unique feel and character that we come to know and understand. We build a relationship founded on shared experiences with a bike, and because of this it becomes so very hard to consider letting go of them.

Posted by: titaniumparts | September 3, 2008

Transcending the everyday

Me descending the shot-line on another dive - a bit like riding a bike, as it happens.

This is me descending the shot-line on another dive - a bit like riding a bike, as it happens.

I’ve just been reading something by a Sunday newspaper columnist who had, doubtless out of professional desperation to fill her weekly column inches, written a humorous and gently derisory critique of adventure sports enthusiasts.

In this account she appeared to be using the terms ‘seize the day’, ‘live every day as if it were your last’ and ‘live in the now’ interchangeably, as equivalent expressions of a particular kind of hedonistic attitude. I found myself slightly irritated by this, because whatever your views upon seizing your days and living them as if they were your last, I don’t think it’s at all the same as ‘living in the now’.

Many eastern philosophies and spiritual practices make much of the benefits in terms of emotional balance, calmness and contentment that can derive from locating our awareness in the present moment.

So much of our mental life can be characterised by either reflections upon the past or worries and anxieties about the future. More often than not our minds are anywhere but in the here and now – even though, of course, the present is in fact the only place that we ever are. And while this capacity for memory, reflection and imagination is central to what makes us human, it is also clearly responsible for much of the anxiety and stress that we experience on a day-to-day basis.

Placing our awareness and consciousness in the present is a state that’s easiest to achieve when we are actively doing, rather than reflecting – engaged with something that absorbs our attention and fully occupies our senses.

I used to do a lot of scuba diving. And not just gin-clear, warm, tropical holiday stuff either, but most of it diving on shipwrecks in the cold, gloomy and challenging waters around the British coast.

Surprisingly, for all the astonishing things that I’ve been privileged to witness in places like the Red Sea, it’s the memories of all those cold, gloomy dives in the UK that I cherish most. Perhaps it was because of the very challenging nature of those dives, the test of nerve, skill, control and experience that they demanded, that I was most absorbed into the moment by them.

One thing that frequently struck me about the experience of scuba diving was that, no matter what might have been occupying my mind, once I dipped below the water’s surface and started that descent down the shot-line I was always instantly bang in the present moment. After all, you have to be really; entering into an environment such as that, where the tiniest issue or mistake can rapidly escalate into a genuinely life-threatening situation, you need to be operating in a state of complete mental focus, with an acute awareness of your surroundings and giving full, thoughtful consideration to the actions you are taking on a moment-by-moment basis. Indeed if you’re not then you probably have no business being there in the first place.

Mostly I dived because I loved swimming with the fish, and to experience the incomparable joy of graceful weightlessness which made that possible. But there was also something immensely satisfying that was intrinsic to the experience itself. It always ushered in a kind of profound calmness and a heightened awareness of simply being where I was, perceiving my surroundings, my experience and interaction with the environment in a manner almost entirely uncluttered by any of the broader concerns or considerations of my life.

For various reasons, most of them to do with practical opportunity, I’ve not dived for a few years now, but it has often occurred to me how similar in many ways it was to the experience I have now when riding a motorcycle.

Indeed most sports, and certainly the adventure variety, have an element of this about them, but there are plenty of other activities that can have this effect too. Certainly you can get into this ‘zone’ when driving a car, but I think when riding a bike (as with diving) it is the heightened element of personal risk that somehow amplifies the effect, together with the far greater opportunity to slip past the traffic and ‘make progress’. Come to that, and while not even remotely being a gamer myself, I can also imagine that this total sensory immersion is part of the appeal that makes video games so captivating, although wherever possible I prefer to get my sensory input from the real world.

It seems that I can’t help but ride in a state of anything less than full engagement and complete absorption. It’s not uncommon for me to be kitting-up before a ride thinking to myself, ‘Just take it easy; a nice, gentle bimble…’ and yet find that by the time I’m a couple of miles from home I’ll already be locked into it with all the focussed commitment of an F-16 pilot in a dogfight. Attacking every bend, running in hard on the brakes, trying to nail the apex and drive out with a hint of shimmy from the rear as it grapples to get the power down. Continuously assessing the threats posed by the traffic around me, while my eyes scan the road’s surface and constantly changing surroundings for any and every little clue that might presage the unexpected. With the engine’s note and wind roar providing their own rich information about velocity, and feeling, through hands and feet and butt, the myriad tiny signals of feedback flooding in every second from the tyres and chassis.

Don’t get me wrong here though; I’m most definitely not talking about going ‘brain-out’ bonkers. In fact safety – both my own and that of others – is always my paramount consideration. But nevertheless I’m still aiming to find the smooth, fluid rhythm that comes from feeling fully in command of the bike and its actions. And in this respect my 749, like most Ducatis, responds best to a firm and assured hand on the tiller, and really only begins to give fully of its considerable capabilities when ridden with a certain élan.

And just as it was when diving, this is an activity that necessitates placing all my effort and awareness into existing right in the present moment, leaving no spare capacity to process anything other than what’s going on right there and then. And that’s precisely what I love about it so much, why I find riding a motorcycle so liberating, because it gives me access to a very particular kind of mental freedom and escape from my everyday concerns. I’m absolutely convinced that this sort of thing is good for you; it simply never fails to make me feel happy.

So an experience that to some might seem frantic and intense is, for me, actually the catalyst that transports me to a state of wholly centred calmness and allows me to dwell for a while in a condition of pure, sub-rational awareness of the here and now. And the rich and rewarding personal experience that I gain from this certainly isn’t just some tired cliché, nor is it the practical equivalent of living every day as if it were my last.

Posted by: titaniumparts | August 29, 2008

Backing it in

Ruben Xaus makes it look easy on the Ducati Hypermotard

Ruben Xaus making it look easy on the Ducati Hypermotard

It’s funny how sometimes, often in extreme moments, you can discover capabilities that you didn’t know you had. Not so long ago I had an experience that demonstrated this.

I’ve watched the supermoto aces many times, marvelling at the graceful elegance of their controlled slides. I understand, at least in principle, how ‘backing it in’ works, but I’ve never been able to do it consciously or deliberately.

The principle of backing-in, as far as I understand it, is this: you come barrelling up to the corner and just before you start to tip it in you bang down the gearbox, usually about two gears so that, were you to fully release the clutch, the engine-braking effect would be sufficient to lock the rear wheel. In pretty much the same smooth, fluid motion you also move forward to transfer as much weight as possible over the front, while hard on the front brake – this loads up the forks and lightens the back end. As you turn in, still carrying a certain amount of front brake, and with the front wheel pointing into the curve, you gradually release the clutch, allowing the engine braking to begin slowing the back wheel. Feed in too much engine braking and the rear will lock up, and you’ll be toast; you need to gently feather the clutch, so that just enough force is applied to the rear wheel that it’ll be retarded below the rotational speed of the front and thus begin to break traction, but the wheel must still be able to rotate freely. This isn’t skidding – you may be using a little dab of rear brake to control and modulate things, but you definitely don’t want to lock the rear at any time. Then, with the rear wheel in a controlled slide, still rotating, and gradually coming back into synch with the speed of the bike, you allow it to slide just enough so that as you hit the apex the bike is now pointing out of the turn, with everything back in line, and you can stand it up, get on the gas and drive out.

(In theory, if you have a slipper-clutch fitted you don’t need to worry about modulating the power input with the clutch lever – you can just let the mechanism sort it all out for you).

Allegedly the benefit of backing-in is that it squares off the corner, and is the quickest way to get the bike to a position where you can start to apply power to drive out of the corner.

There’s a great video here of MotoGP rider Nicky Hayden getting seriously sideways:

As I’ve said, while I understand the principle, somehow I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. Two reasons really, or facets of the same reason: to get the slide going properly requires a high degree of commitment, you can’t do it in small measures and build up gradually  – you just have to go for it. I can’t overcome the strong instinct not to mess it up and risk slinging my bike down the road and, as a corollary of that, I have an even stronger aversion to the possibility of going through months of physiotherapy again; been there, done that – it’s a world of shit.

So one day, a while ago, I was out on my Honda FMX650 (which is a kind of a ‘soft’ supermoto, or maybe a ‘citymoto’).

Coming through a big roundabout, at a reasonable clip, I was accelerating into my turn-off. This particular exit from the roundabout is an odd one, as it comprises two lanes, the right-hand one of which is a filter up to some traffic lights and, as is often the case, this had a queue of cars in it. The left-hand lane just goes on straight; I was exiting the roundabout, on the gas and heading into this clear and empty left-hand lane.

At precisely this point the driver of the last car in the right-hand lane’s traffic queue decided he wasn’t going to wait there any longer and, without so much as a rearward glance or any indication, swung his car out and right across my path.

What followed all happened so quickly that there wasn’t any time for conscious thought; it was all pure instinct.

I was already hard on the front brake and banging down through the gears from the moment I’d noticed the car’s front wheel begin to point left. As the car continued to pull out at an angle, to completely block the lane, I can recall thinking that there simply wasn’t enough road left to pull up in a straight line, and I was pretty much convinced that I was about to run straight into the side of the car.

Again without any real conscious consideration, I think I must have calculated that the only thing to do was turn the bike sideways. The front forks were heavily compressed, I’d changed down two gears, and I’d involuntarily shifted my weight forward and to the left of the bars. As I fed in the clutch the FMX’s big single applied its considerable engine braking effect to the rear wheel, which broke free and swung out to the right beneath me. Keeping the front wheel pointing straight I was now sliding fully sideways, whilst pushing the bike down beneath me.

By now the driver had realised his mistake and hit the brakes. If his reactions had been any good he might have realised that the best thing for him to do was keep going forward, to increase the amount of road I’d have to stop, but he didn’t.

I actually glided to a stop almost perfectly parallel to the side of the car, my right knee perhaps six inches from the passenger door, but without making any contact. The driver gave me a very sheepish look, and for my part I was too stunned to say anything. He then drove off, and I gathered myself up and carried on too.

And of course the point is this: I’d effectively just pulled off a backing-in manoeuvre. On some purely instinctual level I’d been able to do all the right things at the right moment, found the right balance and control. But I know that I still could not deliberately and intentionally do it again.

Posted by: titaniumparts | August 28, 2008

Discovering South Wales

At the top of the Gospel Pass

It seems that I’m often the last person to know about many things and this certainly appears to be the case with the extraordinary motorcycling resource that is the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains region of South Wales.

Although no stranger to South Wales, I only visited the Brecon Beacons for the first time just a few weeks ago and I can’t believe that I’ve been oblivious to it all this time, sitting there a mere 45 minutes ride from Bristol.

However, having since been back several times, it’s now clear that this motorcycling nirvana is anything but a well-kept secret, as attested by the number of bikes in evidence everywhere. I’m always inclined to nod a greeting to other bikers passing in the opposite direction, but riding around here you find you’re doing it so frequently that it begins to take on the characteristics of a nervous tic.

Of course this area, bounded to the east by Abergavenny, and with the town of Brecon, its namesake, at the top, is a National Park, so as you might expect the scenery is spectacular. However you may need to make a conscious effort to take in the views, because it is the primary A-roads that skirt its northern edge (A40) and criss-cross it (A470, A4067, and especially the A4069) that become the main focus of your attention, offering mile after mile of the kind of smooth, sweeping curves that are the very essence of riding satisfaction.

For sheer spectacle though, it’s hard to beat the B4560. For the best effect approach from the A465 to the south, turning off to follow the sign for Llangynidr. At first this briefly takes you through an innocuous residential area, but shortly after you cross a cattle grid and suddenly find yourself in open heathland. This road is an absolute jewel; a sinuous ribbon undulating across the rocky landscape, just like the ones you used to see in car adverts (or indeed Top Gear and Fifth Gear, who film around here from time to time). Remaining mindful of the very real possibility of encountering sheep in the road around any corner, you eventually reach a crest and are presented with a stunning panorama. From here the road dives off down the hillside and into a series of hairpins that would be an untrammeled delight, were it not for the fact that the tarmac on each apex is alternatingly ridged, shiny and dusted with gravel, thus deserving a measure of caution.

The town of Abergavenny presents a natural gateway to this area, and in its central car, bus and coach park there’s a tea and snack bar that is a well-established destination where bikers gather (on a weekend it seems there can be literally hundreds here – a kind of Box Hill west), making it an ideal start or end point to a circuit of the area.

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